Mas’ei 5777: Journeying through the Wilderness, journeying through text

(This text, somewhat modified, was a devar Torah delivered in 2013 at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, MD.)

This week (2017), we conclude the Torah reading from the book of Numbers with the double portion, Mattot-Mas’ei. I will discuss Chapter 33: 1–49, the listing of the journeying of the Israelites, at the beginning of Parashat Mas’ei. My focus will be on the literary devices in the text.

The text enumerates 42 stops, more place names than are enumerated elsewhere in the Torah, and many scholars consider this the definitive list. Some verses merely list the stops on the journey, by breaking of camp and destination. Here is an example, using Robert Alter’s translation, starting from verse 15:

“And they set out from Rephidim and encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai.  And they  set out from the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-Hattaavah.  And they set out from Kibroth-Hattaavah and encamped at Hazeroth…”

The majesty of these verses is conveyed in the special trop (Torah chanting melody) used here and in Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea in the Exodus story.

Let us consider two literary structures present in this text: chiasmus and repetition.

In rhetoric, chiasmus is the structure of speech where two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of wording. At its simplest, it’s an ABBA structure.  Perhaps the most familiar chiasm is JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Chiasmus is thought to add extra emphasis and a bit of suspense to the meaning of the words.

In Genesis (9:6), there is a straightforward example: “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed.”  This ABCCBA structure is more apparent in the Hebrew:   “Shofeikh dam ha’adam, ba’adam damo yeshafeikh.” Perhaps the most important example of chiasmus in the Torah is found in the development of the Akadeh story in Genesis 22. There, the narrative builds up with specific vocabulary and motifs, then unfolds with the words and verses in reverse order.

We have a chiasmus in Numbers 33:2 of our parasha (Alter translation):  “And Moses wrote down their departure points for their journeyings  by the word of the Lord, and these are their journeyings by their departure points.” In the Hebrew, the words reverse: Motza’eihem  to mas’eihem, then mas’eihem to motza’eihem.

A spirited interpretation of this chiasmic reversal is offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He argues that from God’s point of view, the journeys were motza’eihem lemas’aichem, departures in order to make their journeys.  When God made the Israelites break camp, motzei, the purpose was specifically to reach the most suitable new stop or goal, mas’a. But to the people, Rabbi Hirsch says, it was the reverse.  Wherever they stayed, they were dissatisfied, even rebellious. Breaking up the camp was its own purpose. At the moment of departure, it did not matter where they were headed, as long as they left their current encampment.  So for the Israelites, the journeys were mas’eihem lemotza’eihem.

Sforno also noted the chiasm and suggested this: Moses wrote the two words in both orders because sometimes the destination was terrible and the place of encampment was good, and sometimes the reverse. But under all circumstances, the Israelites were obedient to God’s instruction.

I would rather be sympathetic like Sforno than scolding like Hirsch. But minimally, it’s notable that both strokes of emphasis – the comings and the goings, can be supported in the text by the chiasmic structure.

A second literary device here is the repeating of the name of the departure point when listing each journey. Here again is Alter’s translation of verses beginning with 33:15: “And they set out from Rephidim and encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai.  And they set out from the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-Hattaavah.  And they set out from Kibroth-Hattaavah and encamped at Hazeroth…”  The Midrash Tanchuma reads God’s love into this repetition. Each aspect of the journeying – the departure as well as the arrival – likens our story to that of a king (ie, God) and the king’s son intimately reliving a shared path, retracing their steps and actions.

Some modern commentators focus on the idea of honoring the journey, in that leaving a place is a momentous part of a life course, and must be acknowledged with repetition.

From a literary/historical perspective, the repetition places this text firmly in the style of itinerary genres of the ancient Near East. Notably, Assyrian military narratives repeat the names of campsites as departure points when journeys are described.  I confess that when I read about our text’s amazing similarity to 9th C BCE Assyrian itinerary genre, my reaction was essentially “oh, that’s interesting, but so what?” Maybe you are having that reaction right now, yourself.

But!  It turns out that recently, I read a 2005 book titled Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur by Professors Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom. I started reading this book in anticipation of the High Holidays, because it is a scholarly study of a genre of piyyut – Hebrew poetry – that describes the Avodah service in the Temple. The most notable Avodah piyyutim are in the Yom Kippur mahzor, but Swatz and Yahalom’s book provides many more, with translation and commentary.

There I discovered a piyyut (p. 261) that pertains to the repetitive style of Mas’ei.  It originates in the 5th century tome, Pesikta of Rav Kahana.  Rav Kahana’s composition describes how the Divine Presence, the Shekhina, departed in ten stages when the Temple was destroyed.

“In ten stages the Shekhina journeyed up and away [from the Temple in Jerusalem].    (1)  From the one cherub over the Ark to the other cherub over the Ark; (2) from the  cherub to the Temple’s threshold; (3) from the Temple’s threshold back to the two        cherubim; (4) from the two cherubim to the east gate; (5) from the east gate to the    Temple’s court; (6) from the Temple’s court to the altar; (7) from the altar to the roof;  (8) from the roof to the wall [surrounding the Temple]; (9) from the wall to the city  [of Jerusalem]; (10) from the city to the Mount of Olives.”

The repetition of the Shekhina’s wandering around the Temple can only describe reluctance – to hold on to one last scrap of her Presence, to even convey a sense of clinging.  The verses Rav Kahana later gives as prooftexts for this journey portray a Shekhina that lingers, crying, taking time to bid farewell to the physical structure and to await till the very last minute Israel’s repentance, before leaving the Temple in despair.

I wonder whether the text of Mas’ei, and the original chiasmus that focuses the Israelites’ interest on motza’eihem, their setting-forths, tries to convey this mood for the Israelites’ wandering.  Each journey brought the nation closer to the final destination of Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time brought the older, slave generation closer to their deaths.  Each journey hastened the military actions required to secure God’s promise, and indeed, military instructions immediately follow our list.  Each journey reminded them that soon, the Israelites’ intimacy with the Divine in the Wilderness, would be lost to land-sharing regulations and tribal inheritances, which again show up right through the end of the parasha.  With each journey, there is promise and progress, but like many journeys, there is also loss and fear.  The repetition serves to remind us of the Israelites’ grit in embarking on their journeys, of the hardship of their wanderings, and perhaps of their rueful awareness of rebellious choices at their places of encampment.

This simple, seemingly boring text of journeying suggests the range of emotions of a people both embattled and uplifted.





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